COMMENT: To claim Roger Federer has ‘cost’ tennis anything is an exercise in the ridiculous

Gilles Simon has controversially claimed that Roger Federer and his popularity has ‘cost tennis 20 years,’ and we could not disagree more.

When you cover tennis like we do at TennisBuzz, it’s not often you come across an opinion that genuinely surprises you.

Everyone seems to have a different view they want to share, particularly on the big three, how good they are, and how they compare to each other.

This week, though, Gilles Simon managed to raise our eyebrows when he said that Roger Federer had ‘cost’ tennis 20 years.

Speaking to L’Equipe, the 35-year-old former world number six said: “I have nothing against Roger Federer personally, but against the image we have of him.

“For decades, it has been believed that only Federers should be trained.

“And he, with his style of play, his way of going forward, the confidence he exudes, came to validate these choices. He made us lose 20 years!

“In France, everyone wants Roger Federer: parents, coaches… We don’t realise that Rafael Nadal has won so many Grand Slams by doing something quite different.

“That’s why it would help if Roger Federer’s records fell because we’d finally have to see the others.”

Simon also said something similar in his new book. Indeed, he has a whole chapter entitled The Federer Myth.

Roger Federer backhand AO

In essence, what Simon is saying is that Roger Federer is too popular for tennis’ own good – that people are so keen to play like him they fail to appreciate other styles.

That, though, isn’t the problem with what Simon said. There may even be the slightest slither of truth to it. Novak Djokovic, after all, couldn’t be more different to Federer in style, and he is vilified more, though far from universally, than anyone else in tennis.

Even that, though, is more a case of Federer’s style being liked more than others, not others being specifically disliked. We are all entitled to our favourites.

Simon’s opinions may be coloured by the fact that he was, and still is, a defensive baseliner, and that’s some contrast to the elegant serve-volley of Federer.

The problem, and it’s a major one, is that it feels utterly ludicrous to suggest that Roger Federer has ‘cost’ tennis anything. In fact it’s tough to imagine a player who has done more for the game.

This isn’t, I want to stress, a commentary on either Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic. They are both absolutely incredible and history will remember them as such. Nor should this be interpreted as a declaration that Federer is better than either, or both, of his greatest rivals.

What he was, though, was first. And what he became was the mainstream cultural icon that the sport desperately needed at that time.

Roger Federer mexico

Because, while you can argue that Federer is not better than anyone else, you can absolutely say without contention that he is different.

There is an artistry about his game that is almost irresistibly aesthetic… the grace with which his moves, the elegance of his strokes, his soft hands at the net. Nobody had really done it like him before.

There were the likes of Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg, and Pete Sampras, who were all serve-volleyers with a one-handed backhand, and Andre Agassi had the charisma, but there was never a total package like Federer.

That style was not just restricted to the tennis court, either. Federer was, and remains, a cultural icon that transcended his own sport.

As the media boomed in the 2000s with the advent of the internet, Federer was to tennis as Michael Jordan was to basketball, or Tiger Woods was to golf. You may not have followed their sport, but you knew who they were, and their sports benefited from it.

Roger Federer at Wimbledon

Tennis needed that too. It really did.

It’s sometimes easy to romanticise the 1990s in men’s tennis, especially if you grew up in that era. It was often carried on big personalities, though, rather than brilliant tennis, for one big reason – the courts were too fast, the balls were too light, and the serves were too big.

There was only really Agassi who was able to consistently compete at the top without a monster of a serve, excluding the specialist clay-courters, and that was because he was a supremely talented returner.

You can point to players such as Greg Rusedski, who had a big serve but not a big game, reaching a Grand Slam final as testament to that.

Aside from Federer, the game’s other big player at that time was Andy Roddick, arguably the biggest and best server the game has ever seen. Would tennis have changed at all had Federer not offered something different?

Change was needed, and ironically it has probably been the serve-volleyers like Federer who have become the rarest of breeds in tennis as a result.

“The game has slowed down a little bit [in the early 2000s] in terms of court speed,” Federer said in 2018, “because I think some tournament directors were probably sick and tired of just the big serving matches where there were just no rallies whatsoever.

“Players have become very physical and athletic from the back of the court and in the process, we lost a lot of volley players.”

He’s right too, because volleys tend to follow the big serves, it was a natural symbiosis. Reduce one, you reduce the other. It’s inevitable.

Roger Federer ball toss

And that is where Simon’s views just don’t stack up, because you don’t look around tennis today and see a plethora of Roger Federer wannabes. In fact, you look at the men’s game and you probably see a greater variety of players and play styles than ever before.

We have the brilliant aggressive baseliners, we have the touch players, we have the big servers. What we actually have the least of is players who play like Roger Federer.

Stefanos Tsitsipas is the closest we have with the movement, backhand, and charisma, but he, by his own admission, is not yet anywhere near the level Federer produced.

The youngsters on the Tour are very evidently NOT trying to sacrifice their own game in a bid to mimic Federer either.

“As a kid, you see Federer,” the distinctly UN-Federer-like Felix Auger-Aliassime told Vogue when discussing his idols growing up. “He’s almost like a divinity.”

That level of variety that we see in men’s tennis today wasn’t there before Roger Federer, yet it is perhaps the game’s defining feature now.  He was the game-changer that tennis needed, when it needed it.

To suggest otherwise is unfair, but to claim Federer has actually held tennis back, as Simon has done, is downright indecent.

“You often hear people saying ‘if you don’t like Federer you don’t like tennis,'” Simon said. “I want to answer ‘if you ONLY like Federer you don’t like tennis’.”

To that, we want to answer: You don’t have to like him, but if you can’t appreciate Federer, you don’t even know tennis.

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